Monastery of St. Jacob (2)

The Mutilated An Oasis for Contemplation and Soul Restoration


In the first century AD Saul of tarsus, the Pharisee, enthusiast to Judaism, departed Jerusalem to fight all those who violated his religion. According to Acts [15] Paul was born in Tarsus, a persistent persecutor of the Church until his experience on the Road to Damascus which resulted in his conversion which he is described as falling to the ground, as a result of a flash of light from the sky, hearing the words "Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?" In the accounts, he is described as being led by those he was traveling with, blinded by the light, to Damascus where his sight was restored by a disciple called Ananias, by whom he was baptized as Paul.

From Syria, the cradle of civilizations, Saul, later St. Paul, started his preaching after his followers succeeded in arranging his escape from persecution to start his journeys in the world in spite of hunger, exhaustion and torture until he was killed in Rome as a martyr of Christianity.

Many saints and priests followed the footsteps of St. Paul. Some of them chose the famous region of Qalamoun in central Syria where they resorted to the difficult mountains and caves as safe havens from persecution, choosing to live as hermits far from people, to spread the message of Jesus Christ and to follow the road of St. Paul.

St. Jacob (Mar Yacoub) In Qara, a city in the heart of the Qalamoun region, there is one of the most ancient monasteries in the world, which witnessed the rise of Christianity in the East, and which remained, along the years, a symbol of faith encouraging helpless people to be patient and to assimilate the power of man to bear torture and to sacrifice himself for his deep faith. It is the monastery of St Jacob the Mutilated, and mutilation here has a story.

St Jacob is originally a Persian prince of an honorable Christian family from Asfahan, capital of the Sassanid Persians. Jacob was a prominent prince and army commander at the emperor's palace. His luxurious life in the court made him tend to compromise with Zoroastrian creed, the official faith of the Persian court, an act considered a sin by the prince's family.

Jacob's mother and wife warned him that they will desert him if he continues denying his Christian faith. Out of his deep inner belief, he decided to declare his real faith. He went to the emperor, declared his commitment to Christianity, and his readiness to lose all the fortunes of the earth in order to win the bless of heavens. This act annoyed Emperor Yazdagird I (399- 430), who first tried to lure him with the position of a state governor. When Jacob refused, Yazdagird decided to punish him in an unprecedented way, to mutilate him piece after piece, starting from his toes, in order to make of him an example for everyone who would follow his steps.

Jacob did not back track from his position, and the process of mutilation started. With every organ of his body mutilated Jacob showed great patience and forbearance, until 29 pieces of his body were mutilated, before he died.

Mutilated organs were packed in a box and burnt except one piece was kept by the soldier who performed the mutilation. He brought this piece to the temple of the God of Moon in Qara, and buried it in its yard. When Christianity became official faith of the Roman empire, the temple was changed into a monastery and was named after Jacob. In the sixth century AD the monastery became one of the most important Christian worship places in Syrian Qalamoun, and was attached to the Catholic Anglican Patriarchate of Homs and Hama, and remained the seat of a bishopric, home of monarchism, and an atelier of iconography until the eighteenth century.

During its long age the monastery was submitted to various acts of violence, especially in the seventeenth century when it was blundered. In the middle of the 20th century, and when the last clergy in it died, the monastery was closed, and treasure seekers started destroying it part after part.

The New Monastery:

In the late 20th century, and exactly on July 14th of 1994, the Qalamoun Diocese, with the society in charge of the monastery, headed by mother Anies Mariam alSalib, decided to restore Eastern Monarchism, to avail the opportunity to revive the message of Jesus Christ, and to receive troubled people who seek serenity and calm. The first stage of restoration was completed in 14, September 2000.

Father Josef, pastor of the monastery told us that a new church will be built in the monastery to resume prayers and services.

Description of the Monastery:

We visited the monastery with the students of a tourism institute. Our bus crossed the city of Qara for about 2km to stop at the entrance of a huge monument north west of Qara. The gate was high with an arch, similar to the gate of a defensive castle with a four stores tower called the Roman Tower.

At the door we were received by a French sister, who immediately called father Joseph from the field, where he was working, with two other sisters.

After crossing the inner gate we found ourselves in a small lobby with several doors on both sides, leading to an open courtyard with a square pond in the center. In the northern wing there is the old church built of thick walls of bricks to keep warm from the severe cold winter wind and snows of Qalamoun. In another Chamber there is a unique collection of mural frescoes which belong to the 11th century. From the old church we descended to thelower cave which was reconstructed to have a cave, representation of the shepherd's cave of the birth of Jesus.

The monastery now has three sisters with father Joseph, all work in agriculture following a policy of self sufficiency, and hosting visitors who resort to the monastery seeking bless and peace of mind. The monastery has large endowments of real estates, mostly used by the nuns and their visitors. After leading our tour, father Joseph told us that the monastery has a religious message: prayers and reviving Sufism and communication with God, in addition to its earthly duties of treating sick people and receiving those tired of life and its problems. In addition, the monastery has a workshop for restoring icons and frescoes, and mural writings, hoping to revive the traditions of Eastern iconography.

The Monastery of St. Jacob is an oasis for contemplation, where visitors can find serenity and peace of mind, inspired from the idea of sacrificing the body in order to preserve the soul, in a world saturated with materialistic ideas and thoughts.

Haifaa Mafalani